Twenty-three years old, working an IT job 60 hours a week, sleeping at his desk and eating on the run, Johnson was also isolated, lonely and chronically stressed. He'd given up his lifestyle as a personal trainer in his college town to "make it" in the corporate world—and it had hit him, hard.
Johnson was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis-an inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) that is thought to be the result of an immune system gone awry and turning to attack the "self"—a classic autoimmune disease.1 Inflammatory bowel diseases including ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease affect more than 2.5 million Europeans (300,000 in the UK),2 over 1.4 million Americans and millions more across the globe.3 As the name implies, these diseases are the result of inflammation in different parts of the gastrointestinal tract, and they result in excruciating intestinal ulcers, chronic diarrhea, fevers and impaired absorption of nutrients, which leads to fatigue, leaky gut and weight loss. The diagnosis is not clear-cut: there is overlap between colitis and Crohn's conditions, and up to 15 percent of cases are difficult to distinguish. Another roughly 15 percent have a diagnosis that changes over time.4
Not just a gut disease
This was the case with Johnson, whose ulcerative colitis diagnosis was just the beginning of his gut saga. "I was told there was no cure, that this was a lifelong condition that I had to manage and that I was at high risk of developing colon cancer and needing surgery to remove my colon if untreated."
Although doctors used to think of bowel disease as strictly a gastrointestinal disorder, they now know it is orchestrated by the immune system, and new diagnostic tests for the diseases are being developed to look at immune system markers called cytokines that may differ between the conditions.5
Researchers have also found recently that the balance of bacteria, viruses and even worms that inhabit the gut (known as the gut microbiome) and help to digest food, produce nutrients and send signals to our immune system are also key players in the onset of disease. Because it is a systemic disease marked by inflammation, IBD is also associated with many other diseases such as arthritis, coronary artery disease and osteoporosis. And because doctors' first line of treatment for IBD symptoms are immunosuppressive drugs and steroids, IBD sufferers face a higher risk of infections and lymphoma as side-effects.
When the drugs don't work, doctors use surgery to section out diseased portions of the intestinal tract, but that entails many risks itself, and its outcomes are far from satisfactory. One review paper reports that recurrence occurs in 70-90 percent of patients within as little as one week after surgery, and 60 percent of patients become symptomatic again within 10 years. One-third of IBD patients who have undergone surgery will undergo it again.6
The secret life of sufferers
Steroids and anti-inflammatory drugs put Johnson's first colitis "flare" in check, and he quit his high-stress job to seek sun, surfing and the good life in Santa Monica, California, as a remedy. Blessed with good looks and a six-foot-two physique, he started getting lucrative modeling gigs for local clothing lines, and before long, he was swooped up by the prestigious New York-based Ford Models agency.
By age 24, in 2011, Johnson was living in a co-ed models' house in Miami ("with some of the most gorgeous women I've ever seen in my life"), partying hard in Kate Moss style and earning tens of thousands of dollars on photo shoots for clothing lines like Gap and Tommy Hilfiger.
"I thought I was the coolest cat in town and no one could stop me from rising to the top," he says. Except, of course, that "I could hardly stand and I was experiencing uncontrollable bloody bowel movements."
Although he was trying to ignore the reality of his diagnosis and enjoy his fairy-tale life, the disease wouldn't let him. Johnson's medicine wasn't working. His gut pain was wrenching, he was running to the toilet 25 to 30 times a day, he had developed cystic acne as a side-effect, and he was losing weight fast.
Eight months after signing with Ford Models, he showed up for a meeting and his agent didn't even recognize him—he could no longer hide the sickness he was facing. A campaign for Sketchers shoes ended when they sent him home within the first hour of work because he was too skinny and frail. The final straw was when he was unable to control his bowels while wearing thousands of dollars' worth of high-end clothes. "That was it," he says, and he was forced to walk away from modeling. "I was just devastated, and I was so ashamed," he told WDDTY.
Although IBD sufferers are thought to have some genetic susceptibility to the disease, genes don't explain the whole picture. Since the disease was not described until the industrial revolution, and Crohn's disease was not defined until 1932, new environmental triggers are thought to underlie the disease process. A wide range of these have been identified, from smoking, formula feeding as a baby and infections7 to the use of prescription drugs like oral contraceptives, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, and antibiotics8 and even vaccines, especially those containing aluminum adjuvants.9
What all of these factors have in common is their ability to shift the composition of the microbes living in the gut. It's thought that this underlying "dysbiosis"—or imbalance in the gut microflora—is what allows the immune system to run amok and the disease-related inflammation to take hold.
Only recently have doctors seriously begun looking at dietary factors including fiber10 and fat intake11 as underlying drivers of the disease—or as factors with the potential to shift the microbiome toward healing.
Let food be thy medicine
After having spent nearly $30,000 trying to get himself well, Johnson found the answers in the study of holistic nutrition and books such as The Maker's Diet by Jordan Rubin, who healed himself of Crohn's disease; Breaking the Vicious Cycle by biochemist Elaine Gottschall; and Self-Healing Colitis and Crohn's by vegan fruitarian David Klein, another self-healer of IBD.
All three authors suggested eliminating processed food and refined sugars as well as most grains, and all included healthy oils from seeds like flax and pumpkin and coconut oil. Johnson started following their advice and regaining his health and his weight. He got off his medication, and soon he felt like he could live normally again.
After returning to modeling with its party lifestyle, it wasn't long before Johnson "flared" again, and this time he found himself in the hospital after convulsing at a fashion show. More than a month later, after being treated with a cocktail of drugs including antibiotics and steroids, he checked himself out of the hospital, thin and weak, down more than 50 pounds and in a wheelchair. Although doctors said he would need surgery, Dane said he "knew it was up to me to heal myself because the doctors couldn't do anything for me."
"I started praying," he says, starting each day with the commitment to doing everything in his power to heal himself and finishing each day with gratitude for having done so. He meditated, visualized his healing, exercised, fasted and started keeping a journal to track the diet changes, supplements and herbs that worked for him. By this time, he had already enrolled in a nutrition program, and he threw himself into his studies.
It wasn't just the food, the prayer or the supplements alone that helped him heal, he says now; it was all of those things combined. "The main core thing was letting go of control, having faith," he says. "It's about creating belief—faith plus hard work equals belief!"
Today, Johnson weighs a healthy 180 pounds and is free of all medications and symptoms of his disease. He's eager to spread the word to others about how natural medicine can reverse symptoms of Crohn's and other autoimmune diseases. "I feel I have a purpose in life to help educate others about this disease and the options they have," he says.
Johnson co-founded the Crohn's & Colitis Nutrition Foundation. He has a book forthcoming called Going with your Gut and is producing a reality show on natural healing. Now a certified holistic nutritionist, he offers counseling and one-on-one online health coaching to other IBD sufferers around the world (see www.crohnscolitislifestyle.com).
Here are some of Johnson's lifestyle recommendations for his clients.
1) Cut carbs
Many people experience big improvements in their symptoms when they eliminate things like gluten from their diets. This is usually because they are also cutting grains like wheat, rye and barley, thereby reducing carbohydrates significantly overall. Carbohydrates, especially those in starchy and sugary foods, ferment and putrefy in the gut when they can't be properly digested. When there are bleeding wounds in the gut, as there are in IBD, the toxins and undigested particles leak into the bloodstream and wreak havoc on the body.
Complex carbohydrates also feed bad bacteria and yeasts, allowing them to overgrow.
2) Cut lectins
Johnson noticed a difference when he reduced his consumption of foods high in lectins, which are proteins found in many plant foods, especially grains. They bind to carbohydrate molecules within the gut, which can damage the cell membranes and irritate the gut lining. Most people have developed mechanisms to protect against lectins, but for people with IBD whose protective lining of the gut is damaged, foods high in lectins can aggravate bowel ulceration.
Johnson advises cutting out nightshade plants that are high in lectins, including raw tomatoes and peppers, along with cashews, quinoa, many beans and lentils, and dairy from cows fed corn and soy.
3) Avoid coffee
Johnson recommends IBD sufferers avoid coffee because it can be hard on the digestive tract and deplete nutrients.
4) Choose your fats
According to research, a high intake of omega-3 fatty acids in the diet is linked to a reduced risk of ulcerative colitis, while diets high in trans fats are associated with an increased risk of inflammatory disease.11
Trans fats are fats that have been hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated through processing or cooking, and are added to foods as emulsifiers—one possible reason why emulsifiers have been linked to the rise of Crohn's and other digestive diseases.12 Steer clear of anything that lists mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids as ingredients.
Omega-3 fats are found in walnuts, sunflower and flax seeds, and in fish including salmon, mackerel, herring and trout.
Don't ignore the good saturated fats, which have helped to heal many Crohn's and colitis sufferers. Coconut oil is a plant-based saturated fat rich in medium-chain fatty acids, lauric acid and decanoic acid (also called capric acid), which have been shown to have antiviral, antibacterial and particularly anti-fungal effects, helping to control Candida yeast infections.
In animal studies (which of course may not apply to humans), Case Western Reserve University researchers found that mice with Crohn's disease fed coconut oil and cocoa butter had a measurable shift in the composition of their microbiomes. Levels of bacteria associated with the disease dropped by as much as 30 percent in the mice, and their disease symptoms were alleviated as well. Even mice fed low concentrations of coconut oil or cocoa butter had improvement in their small intestine inflammation.13
"The finding is remarkable because it means that a Crohn's patient could have a beneficial effect on their gut bacteria and inflammation only by switching the type of fat in their diet. Patients would only need to replace a 'bad' fat with a 'good' fat, and eat normal amounts," lead researcher Alexander Rodriguez-Palacios said.
Essential fatty acids have potent anti-inflammatory effects, and they are critical for the function of the nervous and endocrine systems and the repair of gut tissue. But they are generally hard to digest from food, so supplementing them in IBD is critical.
5) Drink bone broth
Bone broth from chicken, beef, venison, lamb or fish is very nourishing to the gut and also easily absorbable.
It's a rich source of the building blocks of the gut lining, including collagen; amino acids such as arginine, glutamine and glycine; and minerals such as magnesium, phosphorous, silicon and sulfur.
Cooking collagen produces gelatin, which helps break down proteins and soothes the gut lining. It's not only useful for healing leaky gut syndrome but also for stimulating gastric juices and repairing the mucosal lining (see bone broth recipe, right).
6) Make your own sauerkraut
Although it's a good idea to try probiotics to seed the flora of your gut with new microbes, traditionally fermented foods like sauerkraut and kimchi contain far more probiotics—or "good" gut microbes that balance the microbiome—than any capsules you can purchase. Natural health advocate Dr Joseph Mercola sent a sample of his sauerkraut off to a lab for testing and reported that in a single "4-6 ounce serving of the fermented vegetables there were literally 10 trillion bacteria," meaning that two ounces of home-fermented sauerkraut had more probiotics than a whole 100-count bottle of probiotic capsules.
If you have IBS or an inflammatory bowel disorder, it can be difficult to eat fermented foods like sauerkraut at first, either because they are irritating to the lining of the gut or because the sheer numbers of bacteria they introduce cause a "die-off" of "bad" bugs, which in turn leads to the release of many toxins that can leak through the unhealed gut wall into the blood stream and trigger new symptoms. Many health practitioners recommend introducing fermented foods very slowly, beginning with a teaspoon of sauerkraut juice added to a cup of broth (not too hot or it will kill the probiotics), and then gradually increasing the amount eaten at a time.
7) Get enough sleep
Making a good night's rest possible and a priority is key to allowing the body to heal, according to Johnson. "Sleep before midnight is twice as effective as sleep after. That's when our melatonin is the highest and we get the highest amount of REM [deep] sleep."
8) Maintain a positive attitude
Once, during Johnson's healing journey, he got into an argument over the phone with a concerned family member who thought he should follow his doctors' advice. "I got upset, and I felt this intense pain in my gut. Real pain." It was then that he realized dealing with stress was critical to his healing, and he determined to actively identify positive energy and cultivate it in his life.
Johnson began looking for all the little ways he could change his life positively—to "compound" energy the way he had learned, as a business student and investor, to compound wealth.
Now he tells the IBD patients he consults with that healing isn't just about their health.
For Johnson, it is about living the life that they want. He tries to get them to see the struggle of the disease as the opposing force that encourages them to grow and become all they can be. "How is it that the worst thing that ever happened to me has now given me purpose, passion and a new career as a business owner?"
The disease that is destroying your health and life "can be the best thing that ever happened to you in your life," he says. "This is about experiencing the highest version of ourselves, experiencing the highest high of life..." It's hard to get more positive than that.
Dane Johnson's Elemental Shake for Crohn's/Colitis healing
Elemental shakes or smoothies are like "baby food" and ideal for giving the bowel a rest and allowing for easy digestion and absorption of nutrients critical for healing, according to Johnson. Here's a basic recipe he likes to use and suggests that each person personalizes it to their current condition, working with a practitioner if they need to.
8-10 oz of filtered water
Unsweetened coconut milk (if you are not in a flare)
1-2 tsp of Udo's oil, which is a blend of flax, sunflower and pumpkin seed oils
1-2 frozen ripe bananas (peel them before you freeze them and they are ready to blend). Seedless, skinless, lots of fiber, low in insoluble fiber and high in potassium, they also make a good substitute for ice
About ½-1 cup of your favorite organic fruit such as blueberries, strawberries, peaches, mango or papaya (no skins, seeds and low in insoluble fiber)
½ to a full ripe avocado, a raw green food that's also high in good fat and protein
½ cup baby spinach (optional, if you are up to using a raw leafy green)
1-2 tsp virgin organic coconut oil, high in lauric acid, having antiviral properties and a good anti-inflammatory fat
1 tsp ground slippery elm bark, a natural organic bark that contains mucilage—a substance that becomes gel-like when mixed with water and is a natural
stomach-coater that can also soothe a damaged gut lining
1-2 tsp ground psyllium husk, ground flaxseed or chia seed as a bulking agent. If you are having diarrheal or urgency issues, this can help, but it can be skipped if it is too irritating
1 serving of l-glutamine (free form from Pure Encapsulations, roughly 3-5 g per serving), which is an essential amino acid that the body requires for numerous functions, especially for building and repairing the gut epithelial lining, promoting mucus production that ensures regular bowel movements and building muscles
Blend and enjoy.
Other supplements to consider
The residents in our guts are thought to be a key driver in Crohn's disease, but the science of determining just what good bugs are missing or what bad bugs are overgrown is in its infancy. It may be that the ecology of the microbiome differs in each person with digestive disorders and there is no single prescriptive probiotic that will work for everyone with the same symptoms.
Furthermore, different batches of the same proprietary formula can contain different strains of the same species and produce different effects, even increase gut permeability, as they did in one animal study.1
When you choose a probiotic, look for one that is manufactured according to the current Goods and Manufacturing Process (and says so on the label). Look for a minimum cell count of 100 billion.
Make sure it includes the bacteria Lactobacillus acidophilus. Animal studies have shown a benefit for L. acidophilus in preventing and healing complications of ulcerative colitis surgery.2
A healing shake made in elemental form specifically for those suffering from IBD, developed by another Crohn's self-healer, Jini Patel, founder of ListenToYourGut, this powdered meal replacement contains whey protein without the dairy proteins that can be aggravating to the gut. It's designed to reduce inflammation and promote weight gain (www.crohnscolitislifestyle.com/benefits-absorb-plus/).
Astragalus root powder
A traditional Chinese medicine ingredient, astragalus is an immune system adaptogen that boosts immunity, calms adrenal responses to stress, and has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. The dosage depends on whether you take it as a tincture, powder or pill, or a tea. Follow package instructions or consult with a practitioner.
This traditional Indian spice (it is a root that looks something like ginger but is bright orange inside) contains curcumin and other highly anti-inflammatory molecules. A 2017 study found that curcumin could prevent damage to the cells lining the gut,3 and a 2015 study reported that curcumin protects the gut lining against bacterial invasion.4
Maca root powder
This South American root, part of the radish family, has been used for millennia as a hormone regulator that boosts libido and fertility. It's also a mood elevator and an energizer, loaded with vitamins B-1, B-2, C and E, as well as amino acids, free-form fatty acids, calcium, magnesium, potassium, copper, zinc, manganese, phosphorus, selenium, sulfur, sodium and iron.
Add ½ Tbsp of maca root to a shake or smoothie. Some people cycle three months on and one month off this supplement so that its effects don't wane.
Bone broth recipe
Bones from organic free-range chicken, beef, lamb, wild venison, pheasant, fish, etc. These can be purchased very inexpensively or even acquired free from a local butcher.
2 Tbsp of apple cider vinegar
Fresh onion, garlic, celery, carrots or other vegetables and herbs such as rosemary, thyme or oregano (optional)
Sea salt to taste
1) Place the bones and vegetables in a large stock pot and cover with water.
2) Add vinegar, then simmer the bones on low heat slowly for 24-48 hours.
3) Strain and refrigerate.
Use as a base for soups, add to stews, or drink alone with sea salt to taste.